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The mother behind Akial Byers’ maturation

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Last season, if the Missouri football team had a 6 a.m. workout, Juneeka Byers would set her alarm for 5. Byers lives about 300 miles away from Columbia, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, but she had gotten wind that her son Akial Byers, then a freshman defensive lineman for Missouri, had shown up late for a few practices and missed tutoring appointments. So Juneeka found out what time Akial needed to wake up each day to be on time for practice, or class, or tutoring. Every morning, she would wake up then and call Akial to make sure he got out of bed.

“I would call him and eat him up,” Juneeka said with a laugh. “‘Get your lazy tail up, and you go to tutoring, because these people are paying for you to get an education, and you’re going to do that, and the way you’re paying them back, you’re playing football.’”

That level of devotion characterizes the relationship between Juneeka and her oldest son — as does the tough love. Juneeka, a single mother of three boys, relocated her family from the small town of Forrest City, Arkansas, to seek better opportunities for her children, worked multiple jobs throughout Akial’s childhood and scrounged together the cash to pay $35 three to four times per week when Akial needed tutoring sessions to improve his ACT score. She doesn’t have a lot of sympathy when her son wants to sleep in. But whenever Akial needed extra help in school or simply a pregame pep talk, Juneeka took it upon herself to provide it for him.

Her dedication is a major reason why Akial not only made it to Missouri, but has emerged as a regular contributor along the defensive line. In the Tigers’ past three games, only one defensive end, Tre Williams, has played more snaps than Byers. Head coach Barry Odom recently said Byers has been “our best defensive end on first and second down” in recent weeks.

“His ability to play inside and out has been huge for us,” defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said. “He’s quick enough to go inside and strong enough to hold his gap. He’s quick enough on the edge to be able to rush the passer. So he’s got a chance to be a special player.”

Akial Byers with his mother, Juneeka.
Akial Byers with his mother, Juneeka.

When Akial was a freshman, Juneeka knew that he arrived late to practices and skipped tutoring appointments because she had instructed Missouri defensive line coach Brick Haley to call her if Akial ever stepped out of line. That’s not the first time she’s given one of Akial’s coaches such orders. Former Fayetteville high school head coach Daryl Patton remembers calling Juneeka when Akial was a junior. Fayetteville was preparing for the state semifinals, and Patton felt Akial’s work ethic had slipped during the course of the season. After he told Juneeka, she showed up unannounced while the team was lifting weights and pulled Akial into Patton’s office.

The next two games, Patton said, were the best Akial played all season. Fayetteville won the state title.

“Those two games, when you start watching the highlight tapes that we sent out to most of the colleges, those were the games that all of the coaches, from Nick Saban to whoever, would come back and say, this kid is unbelievable, he can really play,” Patton said.

Akial’s recruitment exploded after his junior season. He started playing football as a ninth-grader, but didn’t make on Fayetteville’s varsity team as a sophomore. Patton said Akial missed too many practices during the offseason. Juneeka said he missed those practices because she was working two jobs and she needed Akial to take care of his younger brothers when she wasn’t home.

“If you don’t come in the offseason, you don’t play,” Juneeka said. “And I understand that. ... So (Akial) came back his junior year, and he just shot off like a freaking rocket.”

Patton said that, even when he was in ninth grade, the Fayetteville coaching staff knew Akial had the size and athleticism to play football in college. But his junior season, his versatility surprised them. Patton originally positioned Akial at defensive end, but other teams would purposefully run the ball away from him, so the staff started moving him all over the field, from defensive tackle to nose guard to linebacker. In his 13 years coaching Arkansas Class 7A football, Patton said he never saw a more dominant defensive lineman than Akial.

College coaches began to take notice — and not just any coaches. Alabama offered Akial a scholarship in the winter of 2015, not long before it beat Clemson to win the national championship. Akial committed to the Crimson Tide in July. But as his senior year progressed, it became apparent that Akial would need to improve either his grade-point average or his ACT score in order to meet the NCAA’s academic qualifying standards. Juneeka said she implored Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban to give Akial a chance to raise his ACT score. Instead, Alabama withdrew its scholarship offer.

That didn’t sit well with Juneeka. She knows she can be hard on Akial, but she only does so because she believes he has the ability to achieve his goal of playing in the NFL. When other people don’t share that belief in her son, Juneeka gets upset.

“Akial promised (Saban) that he was going to get that ACT score that he needed,” Juneeka said. “That’s the only reason that he didn’t go to Alabama, is because they did not wait for his scores to come back in December. They gave the scholarship away, and then when they found out he qualified, they wanted him to go to a freaking (junior college). No. You have faith in him like I do.”

In an effort to boost Akial’s score, Juneeka hired a private tutor, with whom Akial met three to four times a week. Juneeka said one reason she was so confident Akial would attain the score he needed was because he saw the sacrifices Juneeka made to afford the tutoring sessions. She also made it clear to him that remaining ineligible wasn’t an option.

“Even if he hadn’t made it then, we’d have taken (the ACT) again,” Juneeka said.

At first, Akial planned to enroll in Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College for two years, then transfer to Alabama. But after he attained college eligibility, the idea of spending two years in junior college no longer appealed to him. He followed the lead of his high school teammates Taylor Powell and Barrett Bannister and committed to Missouri.

Akial credited his mother for helping him overcome the disappointment of losing his spot at Alabama.

“She said keep going, … this ain’t nothing but a little bump in the road,” Akial said. “Just keep working, keep doing what I know I can do. And I just took that and ran with it.”

Defensive lineman Akial Byers has earned a regular spot in Missouri's rotation.
Defensive lineman Akial Byers has earned a regular spot in Missouri's rotation. (Jordan Kodner)

Juneeka refers to herself as a “Southern momma” — meaning she’s not afraid to discipline her children. If she senses that Akial is dissatisfied with the playing time he got in a game, or he slacked off during workouts, she’ll tell him in no uncertain terms to “come sit in the stands with me, and stop wasting those people’s time and money.”

“He knows, you are never too old for a whoopin’, boy,” she laughs. “He’s taller than I am — he’s 6-foot-5, I’m 5-foot-4 — so I tell him, we can go out here and box it out in the streets, that’s fine with me.”

This year, however, Juneeka hasn’t had to lay into Akial as often. She’s noticed him mature. For one thing, she no longer has to call him every morning to wake him up. That newfound maturity is a big reason he’s seen the field more in recent weeks. Akial’s high school and college coaches all said Akial’s talent has never been in doubt, but Haley said Akial has earned more playing time because he’s taken his preparation more seriously as a sophomore.

“Basically wanted to see a lot more consistency,” Haley said. “Wanted him to grow up a little bit as a man, take some responsibility. Everything that we asked him to do, he’s done that.”

Haley said the area in which he’s noticed Akial mature the most this season is in his film study habits. Akial said being able to recognize the schemes and tendencies of opponents before the snap has made him more productive.

“I already knew I had the ability to do what I needed to do,” Akial said. “It’s just, if I already knew what (other teams) were going to do beforehand, I already knew what I could use to beat them.”

Akial’s growth, however, has not led Juneeka to be any less involved in his life. She still texts him motivational quotes at 5 a.m. about three days a week. Plus, she calls not only Akial before every game to offer pep talks, she insists on speaking to the entire defensive line. Usually, she’ll call Akial, ask him to gather his teammates around and speak to them all at once on speaker phone, but she said she doesn’t mind calling three or four players separately if she has to. She referred to Walter Palmore, Rashad Brandon, Chris Turner and Kobie Whiteside as “my babies.”

“I come there, to CoMo, and I cook greens and fried chicken and they all come over and they have dinner after game day,” Juneeka said. “I do it to show them, I appreciate you guys.”

A lot of football players credit their mothers for helping them reach college. But Akial knows Juneeka is special. He understands that she can’t afford to come to all of his games, but when she’s in the stands, he says, “it’s perfect.” She also inspires him to keep chasing his dream of playing in the NFL — and not just by berating him when he messes up. Akial’s goal is to use football to pay Juneeka back for all of the sacrifices she’s made for him over the years.

“That’s who I work for, honestly,” Akial said. “I’m trying to retire her, help my family out, because they’re still struggling.”